Parenting in a Joined Family: 4 Challenges Stepparents Might Face (and Tips to Deal!)

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

In a few days, my partner and I are taking our 5 children (his 3 and my 2) on a two-day Disneyland trip. We’ve been planning and going over how to best approach it. Since they met five years ago at school, the children have gotten to know each other really well, and over the past year, we, as stepparents, have also taken up more space in their lives. My partner and I are very lucky in that our ideas on parenting mostly overlap, but we still run into challenges as well.

For me, being a stepparent has been something that I’ve had to grow into. Being on the avoidant attachment side meant that I naturally kept a certain distance from my partner’s three children for quite a while. But now, as our relationship has gained in stability, I’ve been able to open my heart to these three wonderful little people, and they have allowed me to be there for their happy and trying times as well.

The children go between the two houses (we live in the same street) often, and we also spend quite a bit of time with the 7 of us. While spending so much time with each other’s children, here are some of the issues we (have) run into and how we’ve tried to tackle them:

  1. Disciplining your partner’s children
    As I mentioned, thankfully, we maintain more or less the same boundaries for what passes as acceptable, and even our approaches for how we handle those boundaries being crossed are along similar lines.
    Usually, things go pretty smoothly when it comes to responding when there’s only one parent present, but when we’re together, we can get protective of our own kids at times.
    So when an incident occurs when both of us are present, we usually leave the main response over to the actual parent. If my child hurts someone, I’ll usually be the one to deal with the situation. When disciplining my partner’s children, I know that for them their father is the main authority if he’s there, so I’ll refer back to him as well. As our families become more entwined, I could see this evolving over time, but this works best for us at this moment.
  2. Confusing rules
    In general, we try to make sure to always back up each other around the children. If I’ve told them they’re not getting a cookie, my partner won’t hand out cookies behind my back, obviously. There are, however, times when our rules are not the same by default and we haven’t talked about them beforehand (this is unavoidable). When we eat meals together, the table manners may not match 100%, or when we’re going on a daytrip, we may have other expectations about how the kids behave. In those cases, I’m finding it easier to relax a little in my own rules, and as we spend more and more time together as a family, these rules converge more and more as well. Which leads me to issue nr. 3:
  3. Lack of communication
    We find ourselves mostly triggered when there is conflict between our children. For instance, when our two daughters are arguing, we have an easier time empathizing with what our own daughter might need. Since we’ll mostly have to deal with the consequences of that girl’s unmet needs, that makes sense. But our daughters, in their relationship, also reflect the relationship between me and my partner, to a degree.
    The key, during these moments, is to communicate, discuss and then talk some more. We usually do this after the incident, and out of the kids’ earshot. In the end, we both want what’s best for all of our children. We want all of their needs to be met in as much as possible. If we give the kids (and ourselves) some time to talk things over, that joint desire for joy and harmony usually finds its way to reality.
  4. Rising tension
    When the 5 children all play together, they can play very beautifully. We’ll see playmates switch from time to time, and they learn to negotiate and communicate with each other. It’s valuable fun and learning time. When they are together for a long time, however, tension can also rise, mostly for our eldest boys. We can usually tell by the amount of little incidents that builds up that the children might need a break.
    We’ve learned to build in time for just the original family, where I will spend time with my two children and he will cocoon with his 3 children. I try to make sure to build in that time beforehand as well, if I know we’ll be spending a lot of time together later on. In general, keeping the children as conflict-free as possible is a great idea for all 7 of us!

As much as there are challenges with being a stepparent, this role also comes with unique moments of love and joy. Instead of dividing my love over 5 children instead of 2, I feel it has just grown exponentially to include all of them. The closer we become as a family, the more I see my life being enriched by these 5 amazing children. I share little, private moments together with all of them, building 5 beautiful relationships. With each child being so different, each of them brings something unique to our new family, from thoughtful comments to silly jokes, from dance routines to self-organized ‘festivals’. They also each challenge us in our empathy and understanding in different ways, teaching us their own, individual lessons.

So yes, at times being a family of 7, with 5 children between the ages of 5 and 9, can be quite a handful, but as we learn how to handle it better with each month that passes, it fills our lives with so much more love than I thought possible.

Looking forward, I just know we’ve got so many more wonderful adventures coming our way! Starting with…

Disneyland, here we come!

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